Solar panels have been extraordinary from their very conception.
The idea that you can take energy from our sun and use it to create electricity is nothing short of a miracle! Inspired by the way plants use their leaves for photosynthesis, in the last hundred years, solar panels have transformed from a pipe-dream invention to a reliable source of energy that is harnessed by households, businesses, and countries around the world.
Put very simply, solar panels work by capturing sunlight and converting it into electricity. A little more complex description would be that solar panels are made up of smaller solar cells which are made out of silicon.
We’ll go more into detail on silicon later, but what you have to know is that silicon is a semiconductor, making it able to store energy from our sun.
Our planet intercepts 173 terawatts of power from our sun each year, so there’s a lot to go around and to be absorbed by our solar panels!
But how are solar panels made? This article is here to answer this question. We’ll take you through some of the history around solar panels, some of the science which informed future manufacturing choices, and finally how conventional solar panels are made today.
Through time solar panels have gotten a lot more complex, so there is a variety of different types to go through! We’ve also added a short FAQ section to answer some of the more technical questions you may have.
How Were The First Solar Panels Made?
What is most likely the first solar cell was invented in Russia in 1888 by Russian Physicist Aleksandr Stoletov. He built a solar cell based on the photoelectric effect – an effect discovered one year before that allowed scientists to understand how electrons are emitted after light strikes an object.
This effect was vital in the creation of solar panels as it taught us some important lessons in how light is absorbed at a quantum level. Aleksandr Stoletov used this information to build the earliest version of a solar cell, which now makes up all solar panel technology.
If we jump forward to the 1950s, scientists had begun to realize the power in semiconducting (a material that allows electricity through it easier when it is heated up) materials like silicon.
Though many solar cells in the past had been made with low efficiency, the use of silicon drastically improved this. Efficiency was vital when scientists were inventing solar cells because you have to make sure the amount of energy gained exceeds the energy used, or else there is no point!
By 1958 solar cells were sing used as an application installed onto the Vanguard Satellite. They were added as a power source outside of its primary battery source. Collar cells were fitted onto its arrays which allowed months of power in space.
Since then solar panels are used for two main purposes – power sensors, heating, and cooling, and power electrically powered propulsion.
By the turn of the century, we had more impressive solar cells that were more than capable of powering homes and buildings, providing they can get enough sunlight.
How Are Solar Panels Made Up Today?
With improvements in technology and investment, as well as the hard work of countless inventors and scientists across the last 150 years, we’ve been able to refine the process and design of solar panels. But how are they made today?
Surely it’s a lot more complex than the original solar cells built-in 1888. Well, yes, they are more complicated – but all solar panels consist of generally of similar materials.
The ‘panel’ part of solar panels is made up of solar cells, which are usually made from silicon semiconductors. These cells are arranged onto a large frame and placed up in a place where they can get direct sunlight.
These panels are then hooked up electrically into inverters which transform the current of electricity and direct it to the home or storage.
That said, manufacturers of solar panels now have a variety of different materials to choose from, so let’s explore some of them here.
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Silicon is the second most common element on earth behind oxygen. You have to be careful not to confuse it with silicone, which is a synthetic substance made by humans. Silicon is the 14th element on the periodic table of elements.
It is used for 95% of all solar panels on the market because of its electronic, thermal, and mechanical properties as well as its low cost.
Silicon is used in solar cells because of a few reasons. Firstly it comes from sand which is one of the cheapest and easiest materials to find on our planet.
Secondly it is a semiconductor material which just means it’s able to easily allow electrical currents to run through it once it’s heated up.
When a semiconductor is allowed a great deal of light, it can absorb that energy and transfer it into negative particles. This additional energy allows electrons to easily travel through the material as a current – this current is then used as electricity we use in day-to-day life.
Crystalline Silicon Cells
Silicon is the material that represents over 95% of solar panels on the market today. Crystalline silicon cells are made of silicon atoms that are connected to form a ‘lattice’. Lattices are organized groupings that make it easy to transfer light into electricity.
Crystalline Silicon Cells include monocrystalline and polycrystalline cells which are both semiconducting materials.
Solar cells made out of perovskite are thin-film and made by layering materials that are coated with underlying support layers we call substrates.
Although these cells have good efficiency that is comparable to crystalline silicon, they are less durable and stable which makes them difficult for companies to take a risk on.
These are thin-film cells made by layering PV material onto a supporting material such as metal or glass. Copper indium gallium diselenide and cadmium telluride are the most commonly used semiconductors for this process.
These are both more complex and lower in efficiency than silicon, which makes them less likely to be used.
Other Materials For Solar Panels
We’ve explored three of the more common materials used to make up solar cells, but there are other materials available such as quantum dot, concentration photovoltaics, multijunction photovoltaics, and organic photovoltaics that are all used and being improved.
Whilst it’s possible to go into the pros and cons of all of these materials, it’s clear that silicon solar panels are the most common and efficient in terms of cost and energy.
In the future, it could be that we find a material that will be even better, or an improvement that will make some of these other materials better, but for now, silicon is the obvious choice!
Frequently Asked Questions
The dictionary definition of photovoltaics is ‘relating to the production of electric current at the junction of two substances exposed to light.’ Sounds complicated right? In shorter and simpler terms, it just means material that can generate electricity when exposed to light. This generation or conversion is what we call the photovoltaic effect. It was first discovered in 1839 by French scientist Edmond Becquerel.
Silicon is a naturally occurring element on our planet, found most commonly in sand, clay, soil, and rock. It is also found combined with oxygen to make silicon dioxide. Silicone (notice the addition of an e on the end of this word) is a synthetic creation that can be classified as a polymer. You don’t need to know what a polymer is for this article, only that silicone and silicon are separate things! They are often confused.
Solar panels will struggle to work at maximum efficiency if there is no sunlight. This is one of the downsides to solar energy – the fact that when night comes they will not produce energy.
Solar panels work to give electricity to your house by converting light into electrical current. This current then flows into your inverter which transforms the current into alternating current or AC into your electrical box which can be used to power your home. solar power is low emission and after the initial investment, can be an economical addition to your home!
We hope we’ve answered your questions about how solar panels are made.
As you can tell, there is some complex science that goes into the manufacturing and usage of solar panels which has taken over 150 years for humans to develop, but that’s not to say you can’t understand the basics. Solar panels are increasing in terms of popularity and complexity.
Perhaps one day we’ll find that that solar power takes up much more of a % of our energy than any other source.
About the Author
Jenny Kim is the managing director at Energy Center of the World where she is responsible with helping make solar power more accessible and affordable to anyone that wants to take advantage of the many benefits of solar energy. Jenny holds a Master of Science in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech where she paid her way through college as a top-performing inside sales representative for SolarCity.